Healthcare sector urged to strengthen staff training on waste management

Healthcare organisations need to strengthen staff training on waste management in order to reduce their impact on the environment and reduce costs, according to new guidance issued by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).

Its waste management guidance is entitled ‘The management of waste arising from health, social and personal care‘ and it has been developed with RCN members and waste management experts from across the UK.

According to the RCN, training for staff on waste management should be strengthened with clear expectations made during induction and support for staff to implement use of the offensive (non-hazardous) waste stream.

It argues that all staff should understand how waste should be classified, segregated and stored prior to collection and treatment or disposal.

This is driven by the need to reduce environmental impact, comply with waste regulations and other regulatory standards such as the ‘Code of practice’, and reduce costs associated with waste management, the RCN stated.

The RCN also argues that all organisations should consider appointing a dedicated waste manager and for a greater focus on the waste hierarchy and for more distinction to be made between different waste types.

Healthcare waste can pose numerous challenges for healthcare workers. Infectious waste, such as dressings from an infected wound, must be put in the correct container type in order to be sent for incineration.

However, the guidance highlights that there is evidence to suggest a large quantity of healthcare waste is classified as infectious and therefore hazardous, when it actually does not present a risk of infection and could be classed as offensive waste.

The RCN has estimated that there is the potential for annual savings of approximately £5.5m for the NHS if just 20% of incorrectly classified infectious waste were to be reclassified as offensive waste with lower associated waste management costs.

Earlier this year, the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) also produced guidance for healthcare organisations designed to encourage workers to work towards best practice in waste compliance and to provide simple guidance on pre-acceptance waste audits, as required by the Environmental Permitting (England & Wales) Regulations.

The guide was co-authored by WSP, the professional consultancy, which also co-authored the Department of Health’s revised guidance (HTM 07-01) on the safe management of healthcare waste.

WSP environment associate Mick Fanning said: “This guide aligns with the revisions to the Department of Health’s guidance that clinical judgment is a key factor in assessing risk and classifying waste appropriately.

“It focuses on supporting front line healthcare workers in managing waste arising as part of their everyday activities, and builds on the findings of the RCN Freedom of Information survey (2011) that less than 1% of soft bagged waste arising across the NHS was classified as offensive healthcare waste(i.e. non-hazardous/non-clinical).”

RCN nursing adviser for infection control Rose Gallagher added: “Safe management of health care waste is the responsibility of all staff in health settings. This guidance is designed to support health care workers, and particularly nursing staff, in managing the waste generated through their roles.

“There is evidence to suggest that a large quantity of health care waste is classified as infectious when it doesn’t actually present a risk of infection. It should instead be classed as offensive waste, meaning it is non-hazardous. This improvement in classification could lead to cost savings and a reduction in carbon emissions.

“All healthcare organisations should use this new guidance and provide adequate support to their staff in dealing with waste management issues.”

Liz Gyekye

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